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Diggin' For Dinosaurs - Field Museum of Natural History, Part 2

Updated on March 30, 2010

If that sounds retro, never fear. A closer look shows that the hall is thoroughly modern - or even postmodern. For starters, it's hands-on. Press a button on the sign that names any dinosaur, and a child's voice pronounces the name for you, both genus and species. That's a godsend for parents faced with having to bluff their way through jawbreakers like Herrerasaurus ishigualastensis and Parasaurolophus cyrtocristatus. Speaking of Parasaurolophus, a bellows-operated device near its skeleton lets you blow horn solos, just as the animal itself may have done through the hollow bony crest on its head.

Other gadgets are pure kid stuff. "Sniff here for a whiff of Albertosaurus breath," invites a sign beside a small vent, adding that "permanent bad breath came from tiny fibers of rotting flesh clinging to its saw-edged teeth." (For all the hype, it's not as bad as a clogged drain.) Down on the main floor, children can touch fossilized dinosaur skin, straddle a five-foot-long Argyrosaurus thighbone, piece together a felt-board dino-puzzle, or crouch amid the eggs in a fiberglass model of a Maiasaura nest - an irresistible photo opportunity.

The captions are short but to the point. "What is a dinosaur?" one asks. The dead giveways have to do with ankles and hip sockets. Prosaic details, yes, but once you learn them, you will look at dinosaur skeletons from a fresh perspective.

Some of the signs make sure you don't believe your eyes. "What is wrong with this picture?" inquires a caption to one of the Charles Knight paintings. What's wrong, it turns out, is evidence that Apatosaurus lived on dry land, not in swamps, and that Triceratops saved its fighting spirit for duels with other Triceratops. Alas, Knight's re-creations, so brilliant and stirring just a generation ago, are now fossils themselves, growing dustier by the day.

That kind of tell-all honesty can make it easy to miss just how impressive the exhibits really are. For example, a sign near Parasaurolophus notes that the skeleton is incomplete because "we haven't filled in any missing pieces." It doesn't mention why. In fact, the skeleton is the official reference or type specimen for the species, its mounting specially designed so that workers could avoid drilling holes in the bones and scientists could remove them one by one for study. Similarly, the sign for the tableau of the hapless Lambeosaurus and hungry Albertosaurus takes pains to point out that the scene is staged: Though it could have happened as shown, this particular Albertosaurus did not, in fact, kill and eat this particular Lambeosaurus (whose skull, the sign adds, actually came from another Lambeosaurus specimen). What the sign leaves out is that the Lambeosaurus is a remarkable fossil. When it was discovered, the bones emerged from the rocks intact, connected, and almost complete - "a dinosaur on the half shell," in the words of the museum's chief dinosaur preparator, William Simpson, and a palaeontologists's dream even without its head.

The hall also contains some non-dinosaur fossils, which get short shrift. Pteranodon skeletons dangle overhead, frozen in mid-flight - and all but frozen out of the captions. Beautifully prepared fossils of Mesozoic fish and marine reptiles, including a 10-foot-long mosasaur, haunt the sidelines in old-fashioned display cases, minimally labeled. Obviously the Field Museum knows who its stars are and is saving the limelight for surefire crowd-pleasers.

After the dinosaurs, a second Life Over Time corridor traces the rise of mammals up to the present day. The highlight is another child magnet, a mammoth-bone hut from a 15,000-year-old Ukrainian village. Finally, an exit takes you through a Dinostore stocked with the usual saurian tchotchkes, but you'll find higher-end stuff in the museum store downstairs.

In sum, the Field Museum's dinosaur displays are fun, fresh, and child-friendly. You can easily see everything in one leisurely visit without suffering the "zone out" you'd get from a bigger, more detailed exhibition. On the downside, once you see it, you've seen it all. Until Sue opens, at any rate, one visit should be enough for adults, unless those adults have children eager for another game of hide-and-seek inside the mammoth-bone hut.

One tip: Go in the morning, especially in summer. The Field Museum shares a parking lot with several other nearby attractions, and spaces near the entrance disappear quickly. Latecomers may face a long, hot walk.

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